Teaching Children Gratitude: Age-Appropriate Methods for Fostering Thankfulness

A boy and girl hugging their mother on a couch

Fostering a sense of appreciation in children is often one of the most unexpectedly challenging lessons for a parent to teach. For starters, the concept of gratitude is abstract and can be difficult for young children to wrap their heads around. However, encouraging kids to be thankful from an early age helps cultivate a lifetime of happiness and satisfaction. Implementing simple gratitude activities for kids and staying consistent is the key to developing a grateful mindset in children.

Why is Teaching Gratitude Important for Childhood Development?

Teaching children to practice gratitude is deeply beneficial to their development, and will serve them well throughout their lives. Children who learn gratitude are likely to grow into empathetic and sensitive adults. Instilling gratitude in kids also sets them up to become less entitled and self-centered. Perhaps most importantly, teaching thankfulness to kids cultivates a happier overall mindset. A study published in the Journal School of Psychology in 2008 concluded that grateful children tend to be more optimistic and experience better social relationships and support.

Start with ‘Thank You’

Gratitude education for children starts with the simple act of saying ‘thank you.” This seemingly small expression of appreciation lays the groundwork for a deeper, more meaningful gratitude practice later on. While it’s true that encouraging a child to say ‘thank you’ may not always elicit a genuinely thankful response, children will begin to understand that acts of kindness or gifts should be met with a verbal expression of appreciation. Learning how to say ‘thank you’ helps set children up for success as they continue to learn more about themselves, build social relationships, and the continued practice of gratitude.

Implement the Four Parts of Gratitude (Noticing, Thinking, Feeling, Doing)

Gratitude is made up of four parts, each of which is uniquely important and meaningful when teaching children’s gratitude lessons. Simply put, the four parts of experiencing gratitude are noticing, thinking, feeling, and doing. Families can initiate conversations about gratitude by asking questions such as:

  • What things do you notice today that are worthy of gratitude?
  • Why do you think you have been given those things?
  • How do you feel about these things you’ve been given?
  • What will you do to demonstrate your appreciation for these things?

While younger children may not be ready to engage in all four parts of the gratitude conversation, they will learn by watching you as well as older children. Asking these questions and thinking about the four parts of gratitude helps children learn how to experience genuine thankfulness and how to express that appreciation to others.

Perform Acts of Kindness with Family

Expressing gratitude can be practiced by the whole family, and performing acts of kindness is a powerful way to teach children how to show appreciation for others. Enacting small, but meaningful gestures with children can help them learn to show gratitude. Daily acts of kindness that you can conduct with a child include making a card for a family member or friend, writing a thank you note, or letting a friend borrow a special toy. Families can come together to perform acts of kindness that benefit their entire community, like donating toys or clothes to those in need, picking up litter in a park, or making baked goods for a local ambulance squad or fire department.

Practice What You Preach

Being a role model is an essential aspect of teaching kids gratitude. Children are very perceptive, and they are likely to model your behavior. When you consistently practice gratitude and conduct yourself in a positive way you are demonstrating the importance of those values. Modeling gratitude can be as simple as saying ‘thank you’ or allowing your child to observe you expressing gratitude to others. 

Establish a Ritual for Gratitude

Creating a family gratitude ritual not only helps children continue to develop a grateful mindset, but cultivates a sense of happiness and appreciation within the entire family. Gratitude rituals can be as small as talking about what each family member is grateful for during dinner, or as big as coordinating a project with a substantial community impact, like a fundraiser or park clean up. Building a daily habit of practicing gratitude will encourage your child to stay present and thankful throughout each and every day.

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